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Music

Five times Neil Young stood up for what is right

Neil Young has caused a storm over the past couple of weeks. The Canadian troubadour removed his entire catalogue from music streaming giant Spotify in protest at the platform’s support of flagship podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, which has been accused of peddling baseless claims and conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 pandemic. Whilst this contrary standpoint is effectively Joe Rogan’s USP, Young’s point is that the show’s spreading of misinformation is dangerous.  

In an open letter posted on the folk musician’s official website, which has now been removed, Young addressed his manager Frank Gironda and the Warner Bros co-chairman and Chief Operating Officer Tom Corson. He said: “I am doing this because Spotify is spreading fake information about vaccines – potentially causing death to those who believe the disinformation being spread by them.”

Young added: “Please act on this immediately today and keep me informed of the time schedule… I want you to let Spotify know immediately TODAY that I want all my music off their platform…They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.”

The songwriting hero joined 270 doctors and scientists in protest after they signed an open letter to Spotify citing: “With an estimated 11 million listeners per episode, JRE, which is hosted exclusively on Spotify, is the world’s largest podcast and has tremendous influence. Spotify has a responsibility to mitigate the spread of misinformation on its platform, though the company presently has no misinformation policy.”

In a follow-up statement to his initial one, Young wrote: “I am very happy with their support. I want to personally thank Merck (Mercuriadis, Hipgnosis founder) and Hipgnosis for standing with me. (This is) a costly move, but worth it for our integrity and beliefs.”

After his well-publicised protest, Spotify agreed to remove Young’s music. It is estimated that Young will lose around 60% of his streaming revenue because of his decision. However, he was not alone. Joni Mitchell, Nils Lofgren and now Young’s ex-CSNY bandmate, Graham Nash, have all removed their music from the service in solidarity with their old friend. 

These moves by some of the biggest names in music have seen Spotify’s market worth plummet considerably and have left the platform scrambling for an ointment. Although this latest frontline in the culture war raises many questions about the future of music and Spotify, it also raised another significant point. Neil Young has always stood up for what is right.

His decision to protest Spotify is imbued with the ethos of the counterculture and shouldn’t come as a surprise. In terms of musician’s whose stature is colossal, Young is one of the most principled. Duly, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to list five other times when he stood up for what is right and set about using his platform for good.

Five times Neil Young stood up for what is right:

The Bridge School Benefit

The Bridge School Benefit was an annual charity concert that was held every October at California’s Shoreline Amphitheatre from 1986 until 2016, with only two years missed in 1987 and 1988. The shows were held across an entire weekend and were organised by Young and his wife at the time, Pegi. The concerts were held to provide primary funding for The Bridge School in Hillsborough, California. The school aids children who have severe physical and speech impairments. This was something close to Young’s heart, as his son Zeke has cerebral palsy.

Over the years, Young managed to enlist Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Robin Williams, Tom Petty and even Sonic Youth to perform. A classic example of Young using his platform and connections for good, the school benefitted in numerous ways from such a consistent show of support.

MTV criticism

Given that Young is such a staunch defender of all things just, he once took MTV to task for banning his 1988 music video for ‘This Note’s For You’. The song sees Young take aim at the corporate commodification that swept music in the late ’80s and that art had become the product of big business.

Directed by Julien Temple and written by Charlie Coffey, the video parodies everyone from Coca-Cola to Bud Light. It also satirises the Michelob adverts, which featured musicians such as Eric Clapton and Genesis. It didn’t stop there, either. There was also fun poking at Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. MTV would claim that they banned the video because of legal threats from Jackson’s lawyers.

Young responded, in some form of precursor to his Spotify protest, with a furious letter sent to the television network. He said: “MTV, you spineless twerps. You refuse to play ‘This Note’s For You’ because you’re afraid to offend your sponsors. What does the ‘M’ in MTV stand for: music or money? Long live rock and roll.”

Ironically, MTV would renege on their decision, and ‘This Note’s For You’ would receive heavy rotation and win ‘Video Of The Year’ at the 1989 MTV Awards. Ironically, he beat Michael Jackson by winning the prize.

Establishing Farm Aid

It seems as if the ’80s was a decade in which Young was fighting the good fight on many fronts. In 1985, he established Farm Aid alongside Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp. The idea for Farm Aid started after Bob Dylan’s comments regarding the uncertainty faced by American farmers after he performed at Live Aid. Of course, some criticised Dylan’s comments, but Young, Nelson, and Mellencamp decided to act on them.

The first Farm Aid benefit concert was held in September 1985 in Illinois to a crowd of 80,000. Performers included Dylan, Billy Joel, Tom Petty and B.B. King, amongst many others. It raised upwards of $9 million for American family farmers. The organisation also has an emergency hotline that provides farmers with resources and advice to help alleviate their challenges.

The organisation’s good work doesn’t stop there. Early on in its existence, the trio brought a group of family farmers before Congress to testify about the dire state of family farming in the US. Acknowledging their account, the house passed the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987 to save family farms from foreclosure. The organisation also has a disaster fund, which helps farmers who lose their assets to natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. Incredible work.

‘Ohio’

‘Ohio’ is one of the definitive protest songs and a stellar moment in the history of the counterculture. It was written by Neil Young in reaction to the Kent State shooting of May 4th, 1970. The Ohio National Guard killed protesters after denouncing the Vietnam War, and it marked the first time that American students had been killed in an anti-war protest. 

Performed by CSNY, it was released as a single in 1970, backed by Stephen Stills’ ‘Find the Cost of Freedom’. Young wrote the lyrics after seeing the photos in Life Magazine. That evening, the quartet checked into the Record Plant in LA and recorded it in just a few takes. An anthem in protest at the bloodlust of the American government, its themes are still pertinent today.

Opposing Keystone Pipeline

One of Young’s most recent campaigns has been his opposition to the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which runs from Alberta, Canada, to Texas, the southernmost state of the US. Discussing the environmental effect of the line’s construction, Young likened the oilsands of Fort McMurray, Alberta, to Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped on it at the end of World War Two. Young argued that the issues caused by such oil pipelines are “scabs on our lives”.

Wanting to maximise his involvement, Young worked with the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation to draw attention to the issue. He performed benefit concerts and spoke in public. In 2014, he delivered four shows in Canada, which raised money for the Athabasca Chipewyan legal defence fund.

In 2015, Young teamed up with Willie Nelson again to hold a festival in Neligh, Nebraska, which also raised awareness of the impact of the line on Native Americans and farmers. For their campaigning, both were bestowed with honours from the leaders of the Oglala Lakota, Ponca, Omaha and Rosebud nations.